THE BLOG
05/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I Feel Your Pain: McCain's Fatuous but Appealing Tour of Coal Country

Deep in his World War II memoirs, Winston Churchill laments that the democracies spent the phony war hesitant and bickering, thus allowing the Germans to systematically execute a scientific war plan. November is a long way off, but right now the Democrats seem trapped by some of the same problems. John McCain's tour of Appalachia provides one reason for worry.

Two things are obvious from John McCain's April 23 speech in Inez, Kentucky:

First, the guy will be tough come November. His Appalachian tour is brilliant politics. When McCain says, "I came here to listen and learn," his stump speech connects with its heartland audience. His Gersonian compassionate conservatism sounds far more appealing and genuine than similar words did from George W. Bush.

McCain unpretentiously contrasts his military upbringing and career with the hardscrabble lives of his Appalachian audience. He gets in some artful digs at Washington bureaucrats, but he does so without the scowl one associates with Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey. He didn't bother to hit the obvious culture war bromides. He didn't have to. If Democrats allow this guy four months to establish an unchallenged moderate and maverick persona, we're in trouble.

Second, Senator McCain offers virtually nothing of substance that would actually help the heartland constituency that might well vote for him. As the New York Times described it:

Mr. McCain, who was on the third day of a weeklong tour of America's "forgotten places," held out the promise of better internet service and job training in community colleges to this economically depressed coal-mining town of less than 500 people...

In his formal remarks, Mr. McCain distinguished himself from President Johnson, a Democrat, noting he was a Republican who would not turn solely to government for a solution. "I have no doubt that President Johnson was serious and had the very best of intentions when he declared the war on poverty in America," Mr. McCain said. "But the army he enlisted was mostly drawn from the ranks of government bureaucracies."

In contrast, Mr. McCain called for a "People Connect Program," that would provide tax breaks to private companies and federal loans and low-interest bonds to small towns to help provide high-speed internet services to isolated towns like Inez -- a way, he said, "to knit together all of the United States with 21st century information networks will make location less of a factor in the potential for economic success."

This is mighty thin gruel. McCain's proposal in many ways predates the Great Society. It is a throwback to the tepid, Kennedy-era efforts such as the Area Redevelopment Act and the Manpower Development and Training Act. It's hard to remember now, when we conceive of poverty through a racialized lens, but the war on poverty was initially presented and viewed as something mainly for white people, often poor rural whites in the coal-rich hill country in places like Inez, Kentucky.

I'm sure LBJ's daughters are gratified to hear that Senator McCain believes that "President Johnson was serious and had the very best of intentions." Yet what about McCain's claim that "the army he [LBJ] enlisted was mostly drawn from the ranks of government bureaucracies." What is he talking about?

The only visible bureaucrats in Appalachia are those earmarked to West Virginia by Senator Robert Byrd. These are probably not the ones Senator McCain wants out.

Is he referring to those at the Tennessee Valley Authority sent by Franklin Roosevelt to bring electricity? How about the DOE scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratories?

Is he talking about the socialized medicine provided to himself and others through the VA?

Perhaps Senator McCain is talking about the doctors and nurses providing healthcare throughout Appalachia through Lyndon Johnson's Medicare and Medicaid.

Perhaps he refers to the expansion of food stamps, enacted in large part to address widespread malnutrition of the rural south.

Perhaps he refers to expanded Social Security benefits and expanded disability programs so vital to those injured in coal mines or in the region's other hard forms of available labor.

Then there is Head Start, school breakfast and lunch programs, and federal aid to education.

Finally there was the other part of Lyndon Johnson's domestic legacy. The libertarian and social conservative wings of modern Republicanism found a rare point of unity in their shameful opposition to civil rights measures.

Every one of these beneficial programs was pushed by liberal Democrats who believed in, and fought for activist government over the opposition of conservative Republicans such as John McCain. I could go on to note more recent things, including the most important anti-poverty measure of the Clinton presidency: his expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit passed on strict party lines fifteen years ago.

I admire the individualism and patriotism that are so palpable in coal country. Yet the reality over many decades is that Appalachia has required, has avidly sought, and has received, much help from those very same federal bureaucrats towards which the region's Republican politicians routinely profess disdain.

When we look at this history, we realize that Senator McCain's alleged program offers markedly little help. He is on a self-described "Time for Action Tour." Yet the actions he proposes are pathetically mismatched to the problems he came to witness. "My purpose in coming to Inez isn't to roll out a long list of policy initiatives." That's for sure. Maybe he should call his visit the "I Feel your Pain Tour." I suppose this one is taken.

By all means, let's give everyone in Inez great high-speed internet connections. (Though my fellow blogger David Meyer emails that the specific program McCain favors may be a foolish boondoggle (See http://www.publicknowledge.org/node/1334 for details) Heck, let's even try alternative teacher certification in the local schools.

As we do that, can we also make sure that uninsured former coal minors who become sick with cancer don't lose their homes? Can we do more to make sure that people near the bottom of the income scale are treated fairly by creditors, and that these families have financial help to send their kids to college?

Can we restore some fiscal balance by raising taxes on the affluent and lowering them on the working poor? Can we all stop blathering about middle-class people gaining from capital gains tax cuts? Ruth Marcus notes in today's Washington Post that McCain proposes to cut individual and corporate income taxes by more than one-fourth by 2012. These tax cuts, heavily weighted towards the affluent, would aggravate our already-serious budget deficit. They would surely kill many efforts to address palpable needs in poor rural and urban areas that desperately need help.

Lyndon Johnson didn't need anybody's endorsement of his seriousness or good intentions. He vouched for himself by doing a hell of a lot that tangibly helped the people of coal country, and that helped millions of other people, too. Senator McCain--he's another story. This is a story Democrats need to tell, or McCain's scientific war plan will continue working.